posted September 12, 2005

Book Examines History of Veneklasen Brick Homes

A research project coordinated by the Joint Archives of Holland at Hope College has yielded a new book that explores the history of Zeeland-based Veneklasen brick company and the Holland-area homes made of the company's product.

Michael J. Douma, a 2004 Hope graduate from Grandville who is now doing graduate work in Florida, is the author of "Veneklasen Brick: a Family, a Company, and a Unique 19th Century Architectural Movement in Michigan," published this month by the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. of Grand Rapids/Cambridge.

Copies of the book will be sold during a reception being held in Douma's honor at the Zeeland Historical Society's Dekker Huis Museum on Thursday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m., and will be available subsequently at the Joint Archives of Holland. The book's publication has been funded through a grant to the society made in memory of Betty Shoemaker by her brother Gradus Shoemaker and his wife. Betty Shoemaker was active as a volunteer with the society for many years prior to her death in 2004.

The Dekker Huis Museum is located at 37 E. Main Ave. in Zeeland. The public is invited to the reception, and admission is free.

In the first of its two major sections, the book follows the development of the Veneklasen brick company, which for a time was the largest brick manufacturer in Michigan. The account runs from the company's founding in 1848 between Groningen and Zeeland by Dutch immigrant Jan Hendrik Veneklasen and his son Berend; through its growth to include brickyards in communities such as Hamilton, Kalamazoo, Cloverdale and Valley City; to its decline in the 1920s, when the family sold its interest in the firm.

The book's second section provides an overview of the homes and other structures built of Veneklasen brick. The section includes a comprehensive listing of some 231 structures built of Veneklasen brick in the 19th century in southern Ottawa and northern Allegan counties as well as Byron Township in Kent County. Douma noted that although structures built of Veneklasen brick are found in many other communities, he limited his survey to the region settled through the 1840s Dutch immigration to West Michigan, tracing the company's significance in the development of the area.

In addition to the homes, many other buildings were also built of Veneklasen brick. Douma estimates that one third to one half of the buildings in the downtown shopping districts of Holland and Zeeland are made of the company's bricks.

Four present-day structures at Hope were built of Veneklasen brick: the college's oldest building, Van Vleck Hall, constructed in 1858; the President's Home, completed in 1892; Voorhees Hall, dedicated in 1907; and Fried Cottage, which was built in 1910 as a private residence and has been owned by the college for decades, playing a variety of roles, including as student housing currently. Two other structures on campus that had also been built of the brick were Van Raalte Memorial Hall, dedicated in 1903 and destroyed by fire in 1980; and Carnegie-Schouten Gymnasium, dedicated in 1906 and razed in 1982.

Douma did the bulk of his work on the book in the summer of 2004 through a summer research project coordinated by the Joint Archives of Holland. In addition to research on the history of the company, his investigations included traveling throughout West Michigan to document the surviving homes made of Veneklasen brick.

He had worked as a student assistant at the Joint Archives throughout his time at Hope, beginning with the spring semester of his freshman year and including two summers. He became interested in the topic of Veneklasen brick homes in 2003, when he noticed one being demolished on Paw Paw Drive.

"Frustrated that we, the Joint Archives, as a local history depository, had heard nothing of the impending destruction of a local 19th century home, I searched for information on other local brick houses," Douma notes in the book. "To my dismay, I found but a few scant articles and some notable but largely unfinished research on the subject."

He subsequently proposed the research project to Geoffrey Reynolds, director of the Joint Archives of Holland, as a way of chronicling the company's impact before more of its work was lost. Since 1983, he said, at least 25 Veneklasen brick houses in the Holland area have been destroyed.

A triple major at Hope (history, philosophy and a composite in Dutch studies), Douma spent the first year after graduation working at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts and as a research assistant for Dr. Robert Swierenga, who is the A.C. Van Raalte Research Professor with the college's A.C. Van Raalte Institute, which shares quarters with the Joint Archives in the Henri and Eleonore Theil Research Center.

In August, Douma began graduate studies at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Despite the distance from West Michigan, his program includes a familiar connection. His advisor, Dr. Suzanne Sinke, received her master's degree under Swierenga's tutelage while he was teaching at Kent State University in Ohio.

Douma credits his time with the archives for developing his interest in history.

Reflecting on his freshman year, he noted, "I remember seeing on the main entrance to Lubbers Hall a sign for student employment in the archives, and I thought it would be such a good job that I rushed over there and found that the job was still open," he said. "I was immediately awestruck by what I then considered to be the 'antiquity' of the materials - papers dating all the way before World War II, even into the 19th century."

"That first summer and the next were really formative and educational as I was given the chance to preserve a lot of the collections," he said. "I decided by the end of my sophomore year that history was truly my calling."

Douma spent his junior year studying in the Netherlands, building on a year of study in the Dutch language at Hope. His interests combine in his graduate program, through which he intends to concentrate on the 19th century Dutch in America.

Copies of "Veneklasen Brick: a Family, a Company, and a Unique 19th Century Architectural Movement in Michigan," which is in softcover and totals 120 pages, cost $16 each. The Joint Archives of Holland is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and located in the Henri and Eleonore Theil Research Center, 9 E. 10th St. in Holland. The archives can be called at (616) 395-7798.